Monday, March 19, 2012

Nothing easy for Ernie Els

The walk from the 18th green to the scoring trailer at Innisbrook's Copperhead course is a long one, with plenty of time for reflection.

Fans and volunteers lined the ropes along that trek, but even they knew better than to offer Ernie Els any encouragement at this point. He had just bogeyed the last two holes Sunday afternoon at the Transitions Championship, the disappointment oozing throughout the crowd, the pain as prevalent as if each and every one of them had missed that short putt themselves.

What can you say in a moment like this? Do you cheer? Console? Cry?

Els, a Hall of Famer who has won three major championships and tournaments all over the world, was anything but his Big Easy persona making that journey that must have seemed like miles.

He has been battling the putting demons for most of the past two years, put himself in position to win with some excellent ball-striking, could all but see that Masters invitation delivered to his doorstep -- and then let two makeable putts over the last three holes along with an errant approach ruin his day.

After signing his scorecard, he did a slow burn waiting for television and radio interviews, snapping at a PGA Tour official in the process and then doing all he could to not go off on the questioners.

He clearly needed some time to cool off after his bogey-bogey finish cost him a spot in a playoff with Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Robert Garrigus and Sang-Moon Bae. Els probably should have won the tournament in regulation, having missed a 5-footer for birdie at the 16th and then the 4-footer for par at the last, the one that would have put him in a playoff.

Donald won it with a birdie on the first extra hole, making the clutch putt to put him back atop the Official World Golf Ranking over Rory McIlory. Els, now 42, can only lament what it was like to play that kind of golf.

"It's going to be tough to get over this," Els admitted in the parking lot afterward, searching for words to describe how a round of 4-under-par 67 and a tie for fifth could look so bad.

He led the field in greens in regulation, and hit 14 of 18 on Sunday. He was 6 under par for his round through 12 holes and leading, but couldn't coax another one in the hole that would have wrapped it up.

"Ernie was playing behind me today, and he was bombing shots I was looking back and he was 50 yards past where I was," Donald said. "He obviously felt like he was swinging well this week. Obviously played well to get into that position.

"But yes, it's unfortunate to miss a short putt like that. You know, putting is very mental. Hopefully he can figure it out. … Ernie's obviously struggled on the greens more than anything, and that kind of seeps through the bag."

At the toughest hole on the course, the 451-yard par-4 16th, Els blasted a drive 308 yards. With 147 to the pin, he knocked his approach to inside 5 feet. A birdie there and he takes a 2-shot lead with two holes to go. And he pulled the putt left of the hole.

Lost, of course, were the two beautiful shots that put him in that position.

"Back in the day I would have made that putt and would have won the tournament by two or three shots," Els said. "Now it's a different story."

It is one of missed putts, blown opportunities and frustration. Els has played in the Masters 18 times and probably should have his own green jacket. But you can't get one if you don't play, and right now, Els is on the outside looking in at the year's first major championship, not yet on the invite list for Augusta National.

That is due to his slip last year outside of the top 50 in the world. You have to go back 20 years -- to the end of 1992, when he was a virtual nobody and ranked 40th -- to find him that low.

By falling outside of the top 50, Els saw a Masters invite slip through his grasp, one that he's had three months to rectify by either winning a PGA Tour event or moving into the top 50 again. He started the Transitions at 68th in the world, and moved to only 62nd with his tie for fifth.

Next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational is the last chance to get into the top 50, and he's likely in need of a victory there, too, to crack the top 50. Short of that, his only way into the Masters would be a win at the Shell Houston Open.

"I was just trying to win a golf tournament," Els said when asked if he was thinking about the Masters, which starts April 5. "Obviously, I can't lie to you, I've been thinking about it constantly. But I just want to get the job done and win golf tournaments."

Els said the missed putt on 16 affected him on both his tee shot at the 17th hole and on the short putt on 18. After failing to convert the birdie putt, there was a long wait on the 17th tee, a difficult 218-yard par-3 where Els pushed his 4-iron to the right and was fortunate to have a shot to the green.

He left himself a 25-footer for par, narrowly missed, then walked to the 18th tee tied for the lead. After a perfect drive, Els had just 160 left, but pulled his 7-iron approach just off the green. He hit a decent chip to 4 feet, then missed.

Afterward, Els was asked by a television interviewer if he had the confidence to make the putt. You could almost see the steam coming from the top of Els' head as he answered by saying "I just pulled it a bit." He then did a radio interview when he said, "I was just trying to jam it in there and I pulled it."

This, obviously, was not the time to be asking questions, but Els consented, then signed autographs as he walked around the clubhouse and to the parking lot. There, the fire inside him having subsided somewhat, he lamented the missed opportunity.

"When you're on the hot seat, people are going to criticize you," he said. "When you hit a good putt and it misses, you're still going to get criticized, you know? So that's the position I'm in. If I hit a good putt, feel it's a good putt and it doesn't go in … doesn't matter what I say.

"I just feel like I'm in a difficult position. Have to defend myself all the time. It kind of came to a boiling point there, almost. It was a bit of an odd question."

Understandable, really.

Els could walk away from the game now and not have to apologize for his career. More than 60 worldwide wins, with 18 PGA Tour titles and three major championships is what already has the South African in the Hall of Fame.

But you could tell by how much it hurt Sunday that Els is not satisfied.

Before heading to Bay Hill, Els is playing in the Tavistock Cup at Lake Nona on Monday and Tuesday. He was asked if it's a good thing to be playing right away.

"I'd rather be sitting here drowning my sorrows," he said, chuckling. "Maybe that's also a good thing … not to do that."